are becoming increasingly popular as companion pets and
deservedly so. These fabulous creatures are highly
intelligent, interactive animals that can live indoors
and out and are quite adept at teaching their caretakers
how they want to live their lives. That last remark is a
bit "tongue-in-cheek"; however, there is some
truth in those words, as rabbits are very capable of
understanding their people.
choosing a rabbit as a companion, the first thing that
must be understood is that they are not a dog or a cat.
I know this is an obvious truth, but rabbits have a very
specialized digestive tract, nothing like what is found
in a dog or cat, designed to digest primarily grasses.
They should never be fed foods containing simple
carbohydrates (read "sugar"). They require a
diet with a minimum of 25 percent fiber, which,
incidentally, many of the pellet rabbit feeds do not
contain. Frankly I prefer to feed my rabbits, and
recommend the same to my rabbit caretakers as well, a
diet consisting of at least 80 percent hay, more
specifically, Timothy hay. Here’s why.
are in a group of animals called cecal fermenters. These
types of animals eat foods that are actually
indigestible except for the fact that they have special
little friends that break down this otherwise
indigestible food into digestible food. These friends
are bacteria, and it is the rabbit’s job in this
relationship to take care of these bacteria so the
rabbit can use its food for what it is intended. Plant
fiber is not otherwise a digestible food.
process in rabbits occurs in a digestive organ known as
a cecum. Incidentally, horses are members of the cecal
fermenter group too; so are iguanas. Think of the cecum
as a large vat of fluid and bacteria within the rabbit’s
digestive tract designed to nurture the bacteria, which,
in turn, break down the fibrous meal into products that
the rabbit uses. These include carbohydrates, proteins
in amino acid segments and a small amount of fat. This
relationship is called symbiosis and it works
beautifully as long as the rabbit eats the proper items.
When this is not the case, the rabbit can be in grave
a rabbit does not eat for a period of time even as short
as 12 hours, changes can occur in the types of bacteria
that dominate the cecal environment. The
"good" bacteria have not been fed and
therefore "bad" bacteria can take over. These
bad bacteria can produce toxins that can be fatal to the
rabbit. This process can be devastatingly quick no
matter what the reason for the rabbit not eating. This
can also occur when the rabbit is given foods that are
not proper, such as foods with simple carbohydrates. The
"good" bacteria do not do well with these
sugars but the bad bacteria do. This then can lead to
the scenario I mentioned above.
bottom line in this nutritional discussion is that
rabbits need to eat a high-fiber diet based on hay.
Pelleted diets can be used in small amounts daily to go
with the hay, the key term here being "small."
I recommend 1/4 cup maximum. I mentioned Timothy hay as
the hay I recommend for rabbits. This type of hay is not
too rich in calories and not too high in calcium when
compared with alfalfa hay. Alfalfa should not be fed to
rabbits, period. This also goes for the pellets. Use
pellets that are Timothy-hay based. The pellets should
also contain a minimum of 25 percent fiber.
my veterinary experience working with rabbit patients
over the last — and I hesitate to share this big
number — 27 years, I would venture a guess that
greater than 75 percent of the problems I deal with in
these wonderful creatures occur as a result of improper
feeding. Feeding a Timothy hay-based diet with a small
amount of pellets, if desired, along with clean water is
the best way to prevent many potential problems for your